Can we let go of a lifetime of pain & suffering?

I’m now witnessing first hand a concept from psychology that I have always believed and yet still wondered about. I am observing in those near death what seems to be an endless outflowing of anger and bitterness at the end of life. Both of my parents were what I would call uptight people. My Dad was definitely an angry controlling person and both of my parents could be called obsessive about getting everything ‘right’ and keeping up appearances for others. Everything had to appear ‘proper.’

Instead I observed that my Mom took mountains of criticism from my Dad throughout their nearly 70 year marriage. She rarely got angry or even replied to this barrage of constant critique. She would drink quite a bit of wine, complain to us, and then simmer in bitterness and rage, while she continued to devote her entire life to helping him reach his goals. The tension in our home was palpable. As you might guess, his kids were collateral damage, each absorbing their share of criticism, anger and love that was always quite conditional.

“Letting go of our suffering is the hardest work we will ever do.” — Stephen Levine

Where does all of that bitterness and anger go in the long-term? Can we resolve these tension in some way before we die? I am wondering about this for my Mom, who is extremely depressed and confused at age 88, after the death of my father last year.

At this point I will yield the floor to Stephen Levine, an American poet, author and teacher, well-known for his work with the terminally ill and/or those deeply affected by loss. Stephen chose to work with this population because they were most ready and even sometimes eager to confront their own deepest misery and, by doing so, heal life-long burdens of self-disgust and punishment. Stephen found that by first acknowledging our deepest levels of pain and suffering and then confronting it with love and compassion for Self and others, most found a way to finally let it go. What a marvelous burden to release before death. In a few cases, Stephen found that this gigantic release of emotional pain was so healing that his patients found remission from their cancer or other life-threatening illnesses.

He felt that our minds fight with our hearts, fear versus love, but by accepting all our past pain and suffering, the sensation in our heart may be that it will burst.

To this Stephen responds: “Let your heart break. Let go of the suffering that keeps you back from life. Now your heart is so open and the pain right there. You are doing now just what you need to do, feel so much compassion for yourself and what you are going through…”

Stephen Levine died in 2016 just south of here. To learn much more about him and his work please consider reading his books. My favorite is “Healing Into Life and Death.” Here is a link to his webpage and his wife’s words at his death: https://levinetalks.com/

My experience has been that unless we commit to major emotional change in ourselves, all of the hostilities and suspicions we have held down within our psyche for our entire life, do come out in the end. Sometimes in some awful ways. For me, this type of emotional healing has taken some great re-parenting therapy through counseling and decades of learning and re-learning deeper levels of self-love and acceptance. This process continues as my parents leave behind their earthly presence.

Sometimes being with my Mom is too much for me, and I must respect my feelings about this. My Mom seems so lost in the contradictions of her life. Feelings of love, anger, pain and dementia confuse and overwhelm her such that she can see no way out. I just wish she could have come to some resolution and healing with Stephen by her side.

Useful lessons in love from old movies… Check out “Lydia” from 1941!

I have become a real fan of Turner Classic Movies since my most recent brain injury the end of April. Actually even with my first traumatic brain injury back in 2008, I found watching movies to be most soothing and helpful in helping me re-learn language. After that first bike accident I could barely put a sentence together immediately afterwards. Apparently I hurt the part of my brain that does language.

This week I watched a great 1941 movie called “Lydia” starring Merle Oberon. I found it rather ahead of its time in terms of sexual liberation. I have learned that in old movies when two lovers share a passionate kiss, that should be read as a sexual encounter in today’s language. Anyway, Lydia, an elderly woman who never married (a spinster in 1940s speak), is suddenly confronted with the four men she has loved in her life as a sort of review of the important transitions she went through. This in itself reminded me of a reoccurring dream I had for years before I met Mike. In my dream I’m standing in front of a room of past lovers. So what do I do? I stand up and shoot myself in the head…

MERLE OBERON & ALAN MARSHAL in ‘LYDIA’

But Lydia is quite gracious to the three past lovers she is suddenly confronted with. These three men have always loved and cared for her, but she could never truly love them because she was deeply and tragically in love with another man whom she only knew for an intense few days when she was young. This sailor named Richard, deserted her soon after they met, but kept sending passionate letters promising love in their future. After most of her past life and loves have been explained, Richard, the man she had pined for forever comes by. After a great line about them all being “old and crusty” the man Lydia loved so passionately forever looks at her and does not even recognize her! OUCH!

What a great summary of intense youthful passion! Hormones can be such a major part of early love. They most certainly color our memories of what may later seem like the best times in our lives. But then the times when love first blooms is always excitingly poignant and unforgettable. The discovery that another person who you find quite attractive actually “loves” you is better than most drugs, and yet it is best to consider that you were on a certain type of drug when it happened. You were young and so insecure and just hoping someone would come along and make your life better. You were projecting all of your greatest wants and needs on to this one person who is probably at least as messed up as you are. Later, when you realize your life is not any better, and perhaps worse with this person….oops!

There are a number of great lines in “Lydia.” One is when she describes her lustful sailor man as: “bad and wicked, and as marvelous as they come, and I am so idiotically happy I can’t think!” Pretty tough to think when you are hopelessly in love and the hormones are raging! Another great piece of advice: “Don’t give your love to a phantom!”

I could relate well to this 80-year-old movie. That’s a miracle in itself! I have had my share of ill-fated love affairs. A few asked me to marry them, but I never did, not until much later in my life. I say, try not to be too hard on yourself for the silliness of your many past bad choices…

Open your heart to those you love. Sometimes it will turn out great. Other times, not so much...

It’s high time for some optimism from an 88 and 92 year old perspective!

I’m afraid some of you misunderstood my last post about academ-idiots. It was IN NO WAY a criticism of intelligence. Intelligence is as exciting and stimulating to me as anything these days. I am afraid too many of us sit and feel helpless when we watch the news. Between Afghanistan and COVID it is easy to slip into a daze of depression. The other day I thought, “Even if I had all the power in the world I could not ‘fix” Afghanistan…” However I do believe that if all healthcare professionals refused to treat those who chose not to follow the science and get vaccinated, we could make a big dent in our nationwide COVID problem.

I spent the past few days with my 88 year old mother. She is a constant reminder to me of how much progress we have made in terms of women’s education and liberation. When she was fresh out of high school, the best life she could imagine for herself was to marry a decent and determined man who might take her to good places in her future. In return she gave birth to and raised three children, cleaned his house, made every meal for us and did a million other things to make my Dad a success in his field of botany. She did finally get a college degree the year my sister graduated from high school, and taught elementary school for two decades after that. SHE LOVES KIDS! Now, as my Mom looks back over her life, she can say she did an amazing job of the only real job open to her 70 years ago. My Dad was also more optimistic about our future than my brother and I when he died at age 91. It seems with the proper perspective of nearly a century, optimism may arrive.

If you need a kick in the butt to feel positive about our future, I can highly recommend an interview I saw today with Marty Cooper, the inventor of the cellphone. He is now 92 and living the good life. This interview is really a history of cellphone development and BTW, cellphones were first developed by someone who was trained in electronics by the Navy, like my husband Mike. Sometimes having the perspective of 92 years can help the rest of us feel good about the future!

Marty’s most important message to everyone is “KEEP LEARNING! BE CURIOUS [about EVERYTHING!]”

I know now that keeping my brain working is a full-time job for me, and nothing inspires me as much as this six minute interview with Marty Cooper on CBS Sunday Morning today. Click here! It is absolutely worth your while!

Academ-idiots, my term for those who intellectualize everything… I speak from experience here :)

I have wondered forever about what I call academ-idiots and how they survive their obsession with living in their heads. First of all I was raised by one and pretty much followed in his footsteps. To quote my first therapist in my early thirties, “I have never met a woman who intellectualizes everything like you do!” Yep, that was me… It’s hard to fight your upbringing when it’s all you know!

Hell, I didn’t even know I was different back then. I thought everybody read constantly and lived in their heads, filling them up with new ideas, new words and new meanings. As I grew up I found it more and more difficult to make new friends. They needed to be intellectualizers like me. When I started at Colorado College, the place where my Dad worked, I finally felt more at home. My friends were a little bit more intellectual, which came to mean out of touch with “the real world” like me. When I got a scholarship to Cornell University to study Chinese, I found myself in university snob heaven. What a trip! Through the years a few of my teachers told me how out of touch I really was, but in a good way.

Since then I have worked with many intellectuals in university settings and found so many to be academ-idiots. They lived in their minds and their disciplines, but did not know themselves at all. It was only years later that I separated myself from this identification with pure mind. Around age 40 I rejected mind without emotions thinking and decided to study psychology, investing for the first time in non-traditional education. I was still working at CU-Boulder, but running down the hill to study at the Naropa Institute, a Buddhist-based university. Only then did I see exactly how in-my-head I had become. What an inauthentic way of being in the world. In fact, it was a bit of a relief when I lost my last academic job back in 2004.

Goodbye academ-idiots, hello world!

A year later I met Mike, the absolute opposite of an intellectual or academic snob. He knew how everything worked and could not specialize or intellectualize to save his life. He was as well-rounded and authentic as a human being could be. He had tee shirts that said things like “Screw- U.” He balked at those who acted like they knew everything, but could not fix their own car or respect those who didn’t go to college. He got his skills training at his Dad’s garage and in the Navy starting at age 17, and treated everyone initially with respect, compassion, honesty, integrity. I find his finest quality to be his sense of loyalty to those he loves. Mike can sniff out inauthenticity from a mile away… not that we have a lot of intellectuals out here in rural southern Colorado πŸ™‚

My life has been so much better since I gave up intellectualizing. It can be so toxic because it can create false illusions that I somehow control and can manipulate everything and everybody. Nope, that’s not how it works. Take it from someone who has learned in the past few years that she cannot breathe without a machine and her brain is damaged through no fault of her own. I am being forced to relax my mind! What an interesting challenge for someone so focused on mind…

Time and change happens to everybody!

My journey continues… My favorite song lately: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bST9VXknId0

What we think about when we’re old and graying, my review of the 2019 film “After the Wedding”

I grow more enamored with Julianne Moore every time I see another one of her films, but this one blew me away. This film dealt with a few of my most crucial issues at present, and did so in such profoundly moving and sensitive ways. If I had to summarize in one sentence, I would say “After the Wedding” is about the terrible decisions we must make when we are too young to make them, and their long-term consequences… It is about the issues we try to come to terms with decades later as we face our own end.

Watching this film reminded me of how I so often wonder why certain parts of my past, certain people, certain moments, certain memories, haunt me, demanding so much of my psychic energy decades later, while most simply fade away. How did I deal with that person, that anger, that fear, that abandonment and why? It seems most of us can obscure painful memories only so long, as we continue to learn and grow and increase our capacity for compassion.

As Julianne says at one point near the end of this film, “discomfort brings growth.”

Yes, I’m quite familiar with the anti-discomfort argument. Why suffer at this late date when nothing can be done about it? I do my share of spacing it all out and celebrating the absurdity of life, but I also enjoy films like this that are so raw and intense they ask you to step up to the plate and feel your past and perhaps give yourself a much-needed break.

I pride myself on searching out and confronting the truth at every turn. I believe that is what makes us a tiny bit better than the other animals. Nothing can be changed about the past, but our own understanding of what it means to us is what makes us human. I also enjoyed the song at the end: “I knew you for a moment” by Abby Quinn

β€œThe first forty years of life give us the text; the next thirty supply the commentary on it.” — Arthur Schopenhauer

Remembering past adventures in Thailand, Malaysia & China in the 1970s and 80s

“Life seems random when you’re young, the wish to travel the result of impulse and curiosity. Meandering is not the exception but the rule. But when you’re older you begin to see that a lifetime has a distinct plot.” -Paul Theroux

The view from my bed this morning…

Because of my recent new brain injury, I don’t go out a lot. My balance is not good, and my mind wanders quite a bit, never staying on any topic for very long. But the 50th Anniversary edition of Travel & Leisure magazine arrived here this week, helping me focus for a while on the many amazing adventures I have experienced throughout my life.

First I came to an article entitled “50 Trips That Stood The Test of Time.” Since I have been a lifetime sojourner, I wondered which places they would choose as somehow timeless. I was surprised to see how many of these places I visited before they became popular with tourists, places like Beijing, Shanghai, Banff, Bangkok, The Raffles Hotel in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong long before China took over, Hawaii, Japan, Venice and even Aspen Colorado.

To this list I would add two of my favorite places in China, Xian and Guilin in the south. I will never forget a boat trip I took up the Li River to see the Karst Cliffs around Guilin in the early 1980s. It was a difficult but memorable trip on what I called “The People’s Ferry” up the Pearl River from Guangzhou to Wuzhou in 1984, a trip I learned about in the book China Off The Beaten Trail back then. When we got off the small ferry, the locals crowded around us to stare. I was a little bit afraid, but then a couple PRC government tourist followers stepped up to make certain we made our next connection on the bus to Guilin. At that time Wuzhou was quite a rough and backward looking place, like a town made of mud, and many there had never seen a Westerner before.

I also remember taking the train up through Malaysia from Singapore to Bangkok in the early 1980s. I clearly remember our stay at a very old, frightfully British hotel in Kuala Lumpur, one that has most certainly been torn down by now. The parts I remember are quite curious. I remember the unusual pewter table settings, soup before every dinner, and the old-fashioned Chinese waiters who stood nearby at all times in case we needed something. I remember the sweet tea on the train, filled with evaporated milk, and the vast areas of deforestation along the way, attributable to the expanding rubber industry at that time. But my most favorite and well-remembered place was the island of Penang, a true jewel just off the coast of Malaysia. In 1980 it was not touristy at all. I loved the multicultural feel of everything from the religions to the food! One gigantic curried prawn still sticks firmly in my memory πŸ™‚ Penang is right up there with Venice, two of my favorite places EVER.

That quote at the beginning of this piece comes from a series of reminisces from the before mentioned magazine where well-known writers describe “The Places That Changed Us.” One thing I know for sure, every place I have been changed me. Every place I have lived or just hung out for a day or two, every person I met along the way whether friendly or not, every sight, smell or sound changes us to be more open and accepting of how others choose to interact in their world.

Poinsettia trees in Thailand!

By “winning” a free trip to live in Bangkok in 1973, I was permanently changed. I had never lived in the tropics before or immersed myself in south Asian culture. Everything was new and different to me, starting with the Poinsettia trees outside my door! When I returned to Colorado College a few months later, I found it impossible to describe the totality of my experience to fellow students, telling them that it was a bit like going to the moon. I then switched my college major to Asian studies and pursued my goal until the beauty of that dream died a painful death in my late 20s.

But I have absolutely no regrets about any of my adventures, not even those that ended up being bad for my health. Live and learn! That is all we can do.